True Crime in Horse Racing: Shergar, Stallion Lost
Like Phar Lap, Shergar’s name is no doubt one you have heard before. This English and Irish classic winner was one of the most recognizable figures in Ireland in the early 1980s on the strength of his 10-length victory in the Derby at Epsom and his win in the Irish Derby as well. Yet, Shergar may be better known not for what he did on the racetrack, but for what happened to him on a cold February night in 1983.
This month, we explore the ultimate cold case in horse racing, an international mystery that captivates to this day.
Who kidnapped Shergar and why?
The turn from the gray asphalt launched the observer from the rush of modernity into the tranquility of a timeless way of life. Surrounded by the lush greenness of the Irish countryside, the white square building housed four horses in four stalls just down the lane from the cozy home of a caretaker. A second-generation stallion groom, its resident had charge of the care of that barn’s most famous occupant.
The home was quiet on this cold and rainy February night. James Fitzgerald had just returned from checking in on his renowned charge. Ballymany Stud was peaceful as the family settled in for the evening.
Located close to the stallion barn, they were far enough off the road between Kildare Town and Newbridge that visitors were unlikely at this time of evening. An unexpected knock at the door prompted Fitzgerald’s son Bernard to open the door to a man dressed in a raincoat and a peaked cap, much like any Garda police officer would be on a night like this. When Fitzgerald came downstairs to see their visitor, he found a chaotic scene.
Bernard was pinned to the ground by an armed and masked man while two more similarly attired and equipped men corralled the rest of the family. More disguised persons filed into the home, demanding that Fitzgerald accompany them to the stallion barn.
“We’ve come for Shergar.”
A Shocking Crime
The bay stallion’s face was among the best known of his time. His prominent blaze and four white socks made him easy to spot on the racecourse as he won at Epsom, Ascot, and the Curragh. His win in the Derby gave his trainer Sir Michael Stoute the first of six victories in England’s famed classic. Legendary jockey Lester Piggott won the Irish Derby on the colt, the first of his owner Aga Khan IV’s classic winners, and called Shergar “one of the best [he’d] ever ridden.”
After one season and eight starts, the Aga Khan retired Shergar and rejected offers of as much as $28 million for the colt’s stud rights. His late grandfather, the Aga Khan III, had sold three of his Derby winners to American breeders, and they were all back to negotiate similar for this new star. He opted to keep Shergar in Ireland instead, syndicating his classic winner and sending him to his Ballymany in County Kildare. It was there that the stallion was in the care of James Fitzgerald.
On Feb. 8, 1983, it was also how Shergar in his second season at stud came face to face with masked men with guns and a horse trailer waiting to whisk him away to parts unknown.
Fearing for his life, the lives of his wife and children, and for the bay stallion he cared for, Fitzgerald followed the directions of his captors. He soothed his charge as Shergar walked onto the trailer, watched as the door closed behind the prized horse, and could not see which way the truck and trailer went when they turned out of Ballymany’s driveway. An hour later, Fitzgerald himself was pushed into a car and driven around the countryside backroads until his kidnappers dropped him off with directions to the nearest town, hinted a ransom demand for £2 million, and then left a warning not to call the police.
By the time the authorities were alerted, eight hours had passed since Shergar was taken from Ballymany. Even if Fitzgerald had been able to raise the alarm earlier, the truck carrying the stallion would have been just one of many on the roads that evening as Goffs’ nearby sale had run late into the night. The Garda had no leads. All that Fitzgerald knew after his experience was to expect a ransom call using the code King Neptune. Each time someone called authorities, they hung up before the call could be traced, implying that they knew how the Garda worked.
Neither the Aga Khan nor any of the shareholders wanted to pay a ransom for Shergar. They knew that doing so might prompt others to kidnap other stallions. The Garda offered a ransom themselves, but the amount was not enough for the men holding the stallion captive. As the back and forth continued, negotiators asked for proof of life; a Polaroid photo of Shergar was dropped off at a nearby hotel.
That would be the last anyone would see of the champion.
When the ransom demands were not met, the calls stopped coming. The trail went cold, and the Aga Khan and the shareholders had to face the likelihood that Shergar would never be recovered. Though the Garda suspected the Irish Republican Army was behind the crime, no one ever admitted to the kidnapping and no ransom was ever collected.
The IRA had been seeking quick ways to raise cash to continue their activities, and a ransom like the £2 million pounds that the gang had quoted Fitzgerald would have gone a long way. If they were indeed behind this, they must not have accounted for the roadblocks that the syndicate posed. A decade and a half after Shergar was taken from Ballymany, it was a former IRA informant that shared the first potential clues to the stallion’s fate.
The prevailing theory was that the IRA not only had taken the horse, but also had killed him within hours of the crime. Faced with an excitable stallion who was likely to hurt himself or already had, the informant claimed that Shergar was shot to death and possibly buried in a bog in Northern Ireland. Without conclusive evidence of any kind as to culpability or the horse’s fate, the case technically remains open.
In the years since first Fanfreluche’s and later Shergar’s abductions, security on farms like Claiborne and Ballymany has been heightened and the insurance for horses of their high value written to cover kidnapping, among other risks. Fanfreluche was safely recovered months after she disappeared from a paddock at Claiborne, but Shergar’s shocking disappearance has kept him in the public consciousness in a different way. The mystery behind his fate, much like the questions about Phar Lap’s sudden death, resonates with generations of racing fans who continue to ponder the unknowns while remembering the scintillating performances that made both champions.
Note for readers: For a more in-depth exploration of Shergar's kidnapping and the subsequent investigation, see Milt Toby’s book Taking Shergar: Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case, published by the University Press of Kentucky.